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President vows to stay on despite opposition

Supporters of President Marc Ravalomanana and opposition leader Andry Rajoelina (pictured) held rival rallies Saturday in the capital of Madagascar, one week after security forces killed 28 protesters. Ravalomanana vows to stay on.

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AFP - President Marc Ravalomanana said Saturday he intends to remain Madagascar's leader, in his first public appearance since the eruption of a violent political crisis in the Indian Ocean island.

Speaking to at least 35,000 supporters in the municipal stadium in Antananarivo, Ravalomanana sought to draw a line under the challenge to his leadership by the capital's former mayor Andry Rajoelina.

"I am president of the republic and I intend to remain so until the end of my mandate" at the end of 2011, he said. "Every problem in Madagascar can be resolved through discussion; we will do everything to restore peace."

He added: "I am listening to what the people are telling me and I am determined that Madagascar develops and that peace returns."

Ravalomanana expressed condolences to families of some 100 people who have died in protests, riots and looting since January 26 -- the bitter fallout of his power struggle with Rajoelina.

"As president I am the first person responsible for the population. As such, I regret there were deaths in the various protests," he said.

Rajoelina held his own rally of about 10,000 people just a kilometre (half-mile) away on May 13 Square -- a week to the day after security forces killed at least 28 protesters marching on the presidential office.

Both rallies wrapped up relatively peacefully by mid-afternoon.

So far, the Malagasy military has remained neutral in the standoff -- as has generally been the case in the past -- even as both sides lobby for its support.

"We have a legitimist tradition here, not a putschist one," said analyst Jean-Eric Rakotoharisoa.

Still, the military has waded into the political fray on occasion. A National Military Directorate briefly held power in 1975, before selecting  Didier Ratsiraka as the new head of state.

The army was also split in 2002 between Ratsiraka supporters and those backing Ravalomanana's then-opposition movement.

Over the past month, however, Ravalomanana has replaced the heads of the police and gendarmerie with loyalists.

For his part, Rajoelina -- who has declared himself in charge of Madagascar's affairs -- named a former top army officer as one of two new "ministers" for a government he says should replace the current administration.

Rajoelina tapped as his new "defence minister" former army chief of staff Raonenanpsoamampianina, who has a single name and was fired by Ravalomanana two years ago.

The opposition leader has already named eight other "ministers" in recent days, after Ravalomanana's government ousted him as the capital's mayor on February 3.

Rajoelina told supporters his ministers would begin work Monday.

An opposition coalition siding with Rajoelina meanwhile called on supporters to launch a civil disobedience campaign on Monday in southeastern Toliara province.

The United Nations, the African Union and former colonial power France have recently dispatched envoys in an attempt to foster dialogue between the rival politicians and prevent further bloodshed.

Amnesty International has called on Malagasy authorities to carry out an "independent and impartial" investigation into the February 7 clashes. In a document received by AFP, it claimed security forces had killed least 31 people and wounded more than 200 in last week's mayhem.

In Paris, some 300 people rallied Saturday for peace in Madagascar in a demonstration organized by Malagasy expatriates.

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